Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties? Some of the disagreements that have emerged among New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees in our group discussions would seem to pivot on how we answer this question. The dialogue, as I have heard it so far, goes something like this (I leave it to the grantees and other discussants to extend and/or correct it).
Charles Hirschkind is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests concern religious practice, media technologies, and emergent forms of political community in the urban Middle East and Europe. His book, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia 2006), was awarded the 2007-2008 Sharon Stevens First Book Prize by the American Ethnological Society. He is also the co-editor (with David Scott) of Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (2005). Other recent publications include “Beyond Secular and Religious: An Intellectual Genealogy of Tahrir Square” (American Ethnologist 2012), Is There a Secular Body? (Cultural Anthropology 2011), “Media, Mediation, Religion” (Social Anthropology 2011). His current project is based in southern Spain and explores some of the different ways in which Europe’s Islamic past inhabits its present, unsettling contemporary efforts to secure Europe’s Christian civilizational identity. Hirschkind is a member of the SSRC Advisory Committee for New Directions in the Study of Prayer.
Posts by Charles Hirschkind
Prayer can be thought of as the act par excellence by which we give explicit recognition to the limits of human knowledge and mastery, and so, adjust and orient ourselves to a world that exceeds our grasp. It is more, therefore, than an encounter with a transcendent other, for it entails that we give voice and gesture to our frailty and fear, to our un-Promethean nature. The place we ascribe to that dimension of human existence—to that inarticulate, gesticulating being—within social life strikes me as key to the kinds of habitable world we are capable of making. This is one reason—by all means, not the only reason—why we should be interested in prayer.